Masks are powerful. They disguise. They amuse. They terrify. They protect. They deceive. They empower. They transform. A mask is what UGallery artist Martha Wade calls “the external concealing.”
Art Talk’s Piece of the Week is Martha Wade’s oil painting, Preparation (30”x40”). This enigmatic and mysterious painting comprises three figures among the folds of rich red drapery. There are two older, darker haired women and a young, blonde child, who is modeled after the artist’s daughter when she was about five years old.
If you look deeper in the composition, it is haunted with triangles: the inverted pyramid between the figures, the angles of the central figure’s elbows, and hidden in the folds of drapes. This subliminal geometry evokes and gestures to the central, white object: the plague mask.
The mask has a long-standing, eerie tradition that lends itself to the ominous mood of the painting. 17th century plague doctors, the namesakes of this type of mask, wore these long-beaked masks while treating patients. They stuffed the large beak with herbs and flowers to (ineffectively) protect themselves from illness by filtering out the “bad air.”
Wade, who has a background in theater and a penchant for masks, selected the plague mask as a central image because of a deep-seated, visceral reaction to a photograph she saw of one. Wade strives to relay those moments of poignant, chilling reactions to her audience through her paintings.
“Aside from the visual impact, there was something compelling to me about what it means to have the illusion of making yourself safe, when in fact you’re not safe at all” says the artist. Interestingly enough, this particular mask not only tricks others, but the mask-wearer as well.
The complex, richly symbolic mask has become a recurring motif for Wade. It appears in several of her paintings and has even served, in papier-mâché form, as her son’s Halloween costume. Says the artist, “He was very scary.”
Like the plague mask, the painting itself is enigmatic and mysterious. There is no singular narrative to be unmasked. The community formed between the two older women with the child suggests “a sense of ritual or initiation,” like a celebration of womanhood; we see a young girl’s ceremonious entrance into the tapestry of female narrative.
The painting conflates the loveliness of womanhood, the openness of childhood and the eeriness of the plague mask, creating a perplexing juxtaposition. This gives the painting a cautionary overlay.
Wade meditates on the overarching questions of femininity: “What are the reasons women sometimes need to hide themselves? Or protect themselves? Are they safer for it?”
A peek inside Martha Wade’s studio.
Update: Preparation was purchased on 2/13.